|An Impressive But Distressing Pre-Code Adventure|
Trader Horn (1931) directed by W.S. Van Dyke
I almost didn't watch 'Trader Horn' last night as I had this feeling I had watched it before, but since it's a film from the '30s and just as important purported to contain a "jungle queen" character, that pretty much means I'm obligated to at least check it out. Luckily it turned out I hadn't seen it but merely confused it with another jungle picture --or maybe I just had a blackout which is entirely possible -- although technically it's a veldt flick really, but who says that when they talk about ye olde African adventure films?
Anyhoo...back in 1929 director W.S. Van Dyke decided to go all crazy in that Merian C. Cooper sort of way and thought it would be super awesomesauce to shoot their new big African adventure, half-fictional biopic, of the life of Aloysius Trader Horn to which they had just recently acquired the rights to...IN AFRICA! A lofty goal and a challenging one indeed made even more so by some studio desk jockey bigwig's decision to shoot the film in sound after principle shooting had already begun because sound was the "new" thing. Yay. Thanks. Hey you'll never guess what happened. The sound guys screwed up and the sound captured ended up being so unusable that almost all of it had to be dubbed later at a studio. Double yays. Thanks for all your hard work. Did I mention the part about half the crew contracting malaria which resulted in effectively ending the career of the "Jungle Queen" actress Edwina Booth as her illness curtailed into a weird neurological disorder that took her almost 6 years to shake? Oh yeah a couple of the crew were killed by the wildlife so...yeah, it was rough stuff.
But tragedy big and small all around aside, the film ended up being a massive hit and was even nominated for an Academy award. Despite having very little narrative, the film is incredibly effective as a very early travelogue that's really more of a frequently harrowing virtual hunting trip that ends up stumbling into some rather silly jungle genre tropes. But though we can imagine how insanely impressed the general public was at witnessing some amazingly stark footage featuring a dizzying array of African fauna for the first time, how does it play now? Well...not so good as you might imagine but it definitely has its moments both good and bad...and some rather distressing. Meant as a kinda sorta biopic of the legendary explorer/hunter/liar Aloysius Trader Horn played with suitable pragmatism by actor Harry Carrey, the film follows his character as he trains a young Spaniard named Peru (Duncan Renaldo) who is eager to soak up Trader's vast knowledge and skills. Eventually the two stumble across a missionary woman looking for her daughter Nina (Edwina Booth) who disappeared in the wilds of Africa when her father was killed. When the missionary eventually dies, Trader owns up to his promise to track this missing girl down which of course brings us happily to our white Jungle Queen.
Much of the movie is spent with Trader, Peru, and Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu) Trader's faithful gun boy/companion, just staring and taking in the tremendous amount of footage shot of the wildlife of Africa. Though no doubt many a double was used in second unit shootings, there's still an impressively large amount of footage featuring the characters mixing in dangerously close quarters with highly volatile wild animals. But when I say that a large portion of this film's +2 hours running time is devoted to watching animals run about I mean it does so to the point that it will very much test your resolve to finish watching the film as it's not something quite so wondrous in these image saturated times so full of Animal Planet & National Geographic goodness. An aspect that's
probably certainly more distressing to modern audiences is the level of violence between the animals and some of the actual animals killings which are...quite graphic. Rhinos are shot but don't go down until they are shot a few more times after coughing up loads of blood, a lion is speared between the shoulders and his reaction to this and his subsequent death throes is beyond upsetting, and the fights between hyenas, lions, wild dogs. and jaguars are very violent and a bit rougher than what you would see on even the more graphic of modern documentaries.
But though this aspects are rather distressing in the extreme, Trader as a character is regretful over any loss of life be it human or animal and looks on both as sad and wasteful but also an inevitability of our existence though he strives to avoid such conflicts. Remarkable for a film in this era, all the Africans are played by Africans and even more remarkably they are treated in a fairly even-handed manner. Sure vocally Trader and Peru can be remarkably blunt in their statements directed towards the obvious lesser station of the Africans. But really most of this comes from Peru as Trader eventually demonstrates a very close and touching relationship between he and Rencharo which eventually seems to transcend race and becomes more of a shared brotherhood bond. Some have speculated on their relationship as a gay one, but that angle seems forced to me.
One aspect that I don't see mentioned is the nature of the jungle queen Nina Trent. It's interesting to note that though she was raised by the natives and all her reactions are filtered through her life experience with them, she is by all accounts a very evil woman who, when her resolve is tempered by her animal lust of the handsome Spaniard, is summarily kicked out of her station and hunted like an animal. Often the scenario in which a white person raised native is implied to have risen to their station because of the perceived inherent superiority of their race. Here it's strongly implied she was merely a symbolic figurehead who eventually outlives her use, but more interesting is that under her rule she went power hungry and began to assemble all the tribes into a murderous force. Yet once her "rule" ended the tribes went back to normal and all was good which to me heavily implies the notion that white folks all too often just horribly corrupt the natural order of things and that in many places things would go better without them in charge.In fact it kind of implies this propensity towards violence is somewhat inherent.
But all told the film though truly ground-breaking for its time, overall it is a rather tepid and dreary travelogue with some serious pacing issues and some rather silly elements. Yet as you can see by the unintentional length of this entry there's a lot of interesting things going on here for the more adventurous viewer with a strong willpower for resisting lengthy animal film footage.